“This is not a definition, it is not true—and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.”
December 5, 2011 4:11 PM   Subscribe

In reflecting on the project, McAllister feels “caught between the intimacy of each individual response, and the pattern of the cumulative replies.” The question remains: Why did they answer? McAllister claims no credit, describing his survey form as “barely literate.” He recalls that in his cover letter (no examples of which exist) he misused the word precocious—he meant presumptuous—and in hindsight he sees that he was both, though few writers seemed to mind. “The conclusion I came to was that nobody had asked them. New Criticism was about the scholars and the text; writers were cut out of the equation. Scholars would talk about symbolism in writing, but no one had asked the writers.” Sixteen year old boy dislikes English homework, goes outside the chain of command.
posted by villanelles at dawn (55 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is SO AWESOME. 16-year-old Bruce McAllister, you are my hero. (Adult Bruce McAllister seems pretty cool too.)
posted by feckless at 4:20 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is really cool. I can tell from the responses from Ayn Rand and Ralph Ellison who I would rather talk to about their work.
posted by demiurge at 4:21 PM on December 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Demiurge: That's nothing, I can tell simply by reading their books!
posted by leotrotsky at 4:25 PM on December 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


I can sympathize with the kid. For a fun afternoon, why don't you try and identify all the various Christian symbols and references in Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter?

Very interesting responses from the authors (those whose handwriting I can read, anyways). I think Bradbury best captures my own opinion on the matter; the image instilled by high school English classes is one of the devious author sprinkling deliberately obtuse references to Shakespeare and the Bible throughout their works for put-upon kids to uncover later, when it's obviously a much more organic and spontaneous generation of connections and influences.
posted by Hargrimm at 4:26 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


This is amazingly cool. I can tell from the responses from Ayn Rand and Ralph Ellison who I would expect to create fiction that inspired people to act like insufferable jackasses based upon their presumed moral superiority.
posted by midmarch snowman at 4:26 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think I love you, Ray Bradbury.
posted by The Whelk at 4:27 PM on December 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


It's odd the way people like Ayn Rand would always prefer to tell you how stupid the question is rather than stretch a little bit to give an answer (even if it's the answer to the question you ought to have asked).
posted by Grangousier at 4:31 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wish I could see Judth Merril's response, with the chart.
posted by feckless at 4:32 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Okay, the Rand one damn near made me snarf.

And I feel that no discussion of literary symbolism can move forward without that imagery.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:36 PM on December 5, 2011


Ralph Ellison pwned the shit out of that questionnaire. What great answers. And so polite, too.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:37 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Holy shit Ayn Rand was kinda high on herself, huh? I actually groaned reading her first answer.
posted by Hoopo at 4:38 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can tell from the responses from Ayn Rand and Ralph Ellison who I would rather talk to about their work.

This makes no sense, you don't seem to understand that Ayn Rand is dead and cannot talk to you about her work.
posted by Hoopo at 4:49 PM on December 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


This makes no sense, you don't seem to understand that Ayn Rand is dead and cannot talk to you about her work.

do NOT rile up the objectonecromancers
posted by FatherDagon at 4:52 PM on December 5, 2011 [14 favorites]


I trust my subconscious implicitly. It is my good pet. I try to keep it well fed with information through all my senses, but never look directly at it. If I did, it would refuse to do its creative tricks for me.

Oh my god Ray Bradbury you beauty.
posted by buzzv at 5:01 PM on December 5, 2011 [25 favorites]


Authorial intent is both inscrutable and irrelevant. The text is all there is. Symbolism is an artifice of academe. Things are just themselves. Only my cock is my cock thanks.
posted by yesster at 5:08 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Authorial intent is both inscrutable and irrelevant. The text is all there is. Symbolism is an artifice of academe. Things are just themselves. Only my cock is my cock thanks.

And that's not incense.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 5:15 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there any way to see the rest of these? Many of the science-fiction writers sound like they gave some interesting answers, certainly if Ray Bradbury's example is any indication.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:42 PM on December 5, 2011


The text is all there is. Symbolism is an artifice of academe

Yes and no. I majored in English for three semesters and it was ridiculous. Certainly, academics impose their own theories onto texts and that this is a ridiculous way to approach literature. And yes, things like "the author's intent" are ultimately irrelevant- perhaps interesting to study as an adjunct, but ultimately the work is the work and succeeds or fails on what is on the page.

BUT: Symbolism certainly exists. I'm coming at this from a screenwriting angle, but creating a symbolic language is a huge thing in the writing process of all the writers I respect. Where this is taught poorly, I think, is that teachers sometimes make it sound like a "Where's Waldo" game- either you spot the symbol- "Ooh ooh I see it!" and mark up a point for yourself, or you miss it and move on.

Well, no. Symbols are there to add depth, and to expand on the theme by embedding it in the basic building blocks of the story. Whether the reader consciously "spots it" or not, it is there in the bones of the story. My estimate would be that 90% or more of writing goes on "between the lines," in structuring the story and its world. This is certainly true in screenwriting. The problem arises when teachers teach from the outside in, so rather than analyzing how the story is built and why, it becomes a game of "spot the symbol' and of course, "Write a paper that agrees with my interpretation of the symbol if you want an A."
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:47 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Harvey Kilobit, I haven't found any, but the title of this press release hints that there may be more forthcoming. Perhaps someone with an account could take a look at his Facebook page.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 5:57 PM on December 5, 2011


Ayn Rand: Entitled to the hole of her ass.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:04 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Fantastic stuff. What a cool minor treasure.

I love that Ray Bradbury dated his response "Guy Fawkes Day, 1963."
posted by General Tonic at 6:07 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Settling the Colonel's Hash" by Mary McCarthy, mentioned in the article.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:21 PM on December 5, 2011


Ralph Ellison pwned the shit out of that questionnaire. What great answers. And so polite, too.

Agreed. I especially like what he said about sub-conscious symbolism.
posted by caddis at 6:23 PM on December 5, 2011


Also, the article Saul Bellow recommends, his own Deep Readers of the World, Beware!
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:27 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the Best of the Web. Thanks for posting.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:28 PM on December 5, 2011


Whoops, the Mary McCarthy link is for Harper's subscribers only. Can't find a free version.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:29 PM on December 5, 2011


The Whelk - I think I love you, Ray Bradbury.

As much as Rachel Bloom does?
posted by porpoise at 6:32 PM on December 5, 2011


This is amazing.
posted by roll truck roll at 6:45 PM on December 5, 2011


Ray Bradbury gave a speech about hugs at my parents' college before they had started dating. My father very happily went up afterwards and got a hug from Ray Bradbury while my mother hung back, thinking her poise and jaded English major aloofness would catch the eye of Mr Bradbury. It is a sore point even today that she has never hugged Ray Bradbury.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 6:45 PM on December 5, 2011 [14 favorites]


I just learned that although Ray Bradbury is getting up in years (91), much to my surprise sorry Mr. Bradbury he is not dead and therefore available for hugging. It's not too late for your mom! She should totally go for it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:57 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


What a surprise, Ayn Rand is an asshole.

What a cool project. It's great when your heroes live up to expectations.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:02 PM on December 5, 2011


I love this.

I forget which book it was that we were studying in an English class where the first page literally had a section from the author stating that there are no symbols in this book. And yet.
posted by odinsdream at 7:06 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Ralph Ellison pretty much gets to stay on my hero list. And this allows me to move Ray Bradbury back into the hero column again. I just have to promise myself to only read his fiction and not his current pronouncements on things.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:11 PM on December 5, 2011


Ray Bradbury FTW!
posted by limeonaire at 7:30 PM on December 5, 2011


The funny thing is, for every Stephen Greenblatt who cheerfully deconstructed and supposedly "killed" The New Criticism in the 1980's (much respect for Greenblatt in general, btw) pedagogical practices of reading texts are still deeply entrenched in the Christian/Arthurian "quest" for meaning, deeply isolated from historical context and authorial intention, that those cheery conservative racist agrarian Confederate apologists at Vanderbilt and later Kenyon gave us in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Hell, I went to a top-20 English department for a PhD which I never finished, and even the most "edgy" or "crit. theory" profs still engaged with students in this laborious, quasi-occult like approach to literary "meaning":

"Read this novel over the weekend, cut open its stomach and interpret as many of the various steaming entrails as possible, prepare a presentation for Monday's seminar."

Encourage your children to read widely and often on their own. Keep them away from English teachers or, god forbid, English professors. No good will come of it.
posted by bardic at 7:32 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Jesus, Ray Bradbury is still alive?
posted by bardic at 7:33 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did I somehow miss the reply from Cheever? Anyone know if the rest are available anywhere?

I was once at a reading where an audience member broke a writer. I think it was the American Steve Erickson. An audience member asked about a specific recurring theme, the author said something like "what are you talking about, that isn't in any of my work" the audience member gave examples from each of his novels. The author thought there silent for a bit and said something like " I guess you are right, hope you didn't like it because I'll never write that again"
posted by Ad hominem at 7:45 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Steve Erickson is unbreakable. FACT.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:09 PM on December 5, 2011


I forget which book it was that we were studying in an English class where the first page literally had a section from the author stating that there are no symbols in this book. And yet.

Was it this quote of Twain's from the beginning of Huck Finn?
"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted, persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
posted by luckynerd at 8:10 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ayn Rand: Entitled to the hole of her ass.


I just overheard someone today talking about his fantasies of Ayn Rand chained up in a shower. I... I don't want to hear about her ass any more. Or any other part of her.

It was unspeakable.


Oh God.

posted by louche mustachio at 8:14 PM on December 5, 2011


I kind of wish I had seen this when I was writing papers for classes asserting that the symbolism we were seeking was not placed there by the author, but was the product of scrutiny and re-interpretations that were not really intended. Which is all well and good; when one releases a work of art into the world, it is no longer under the control of the artist, those that consume it will do so through the context of their own experience and will give it their own meaning. But we can't pretend that those new symbols and meanings are some kind of facts that every person reading the story has to find and that those that do not see them are somehow deficient in their reading.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:26 PM on December 5, 2011


Are we sure that the Ayn Rand answer wasn't written by a Forum2000 SOMAD?
posted by Skwirl at 8:32 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


My childhood assessment of Ray Bradbury as the greatest author of the 20th century has just been confirmed.

It's time to revisit some of those juvenile assumptions. I was probably right on all counts.
posted by clarknova at 11:33 PM on December 5, 2011


>I trust my subconscious implicitly. It is my good pet. I try to keep it well fed with information through all my senses, but never look directly at it. If I did, it would refuse to do its creative tricks for me.

Oh my god Ray Bradbury you beauty.


It's almost like the sentiment expressed by Nick Cave in his letter to MTV.
posted by clarknova at 11:44 PM on December 5, 2011


The "English" discipline argues implies symbolism has something to do with the book - as is demonstrated here in the responses of the authors, symbolism is a window into the psychology of the writer and should be treated as such. I feel that the symbolism cult is something that emerged in a desire to create a subject that was completely self-referential. In that vein, perhaps English educators should become philosophers and allow people to write about anything as long as it was a reasoned argument. That might be more pleasurable and educational.
posted by niccolo at 12:26 AM on December 6, 2011


Naah, that sort of faux-naive symbol hunting is done in high school because it's easy, it's quantifiable and though most students will loathe it, it's respectable enough that it doesn't get the teacher into hot water.

When done right, it can be a good tool to teach inexperienced readers that a text can hold more than is apparant on the surface, that looking for hidden clues is a worthwhile exercise. Which is something that is actually useful in real life too, as a casual look at the evening news and morning papers will show.

Course, if you're the sort of self identified voracious reader attracted to an online community based around reading and writing huge amounts of texts, that sort of thing was probably old hat by the time you first got systematically exposed to it, more so if your teachers were not that good at explaining it.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:38 AM on December 6, 2011


Fantastic subject for a post, villanelles at dawn.
posted by pseudonymph at 5:06 AM on December 6, 2011


Just coming here to say the same thing. Thank you, villanelles at dawn!
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:13 AM on December 6, 2011


Though McAllister now claims, “It never occurred to me that [the writers] would answer,” once they did he was delighted

It's funny how that works. I once mooted starting a fanzine and I ended up with enough material from metal bands with European or overseas tours under their belts for two issues. I should extract the material from my old computer once I return home for holidays.
posted by ersatz at 6:15 AM on December 6, 2011


"Authorial intent" etc are such silly things to concern yourself with. Who cares what the writer meant?

There's a principle in psychotherapy that basically says that nothing that happens outside of the therapy session is "real" for the purposes of therapy. If a patient comes in and tells you about their week, you don't presume that the patient is accurately reciting the facts of the week, but rather you probe why the patient is saying this in therapy. If the patient says "my mother insulted me," not only should the therapist NOT assume that the mother actually insulted the patient, the therapist should not assume that the mother even exists at all. What matters is that the patient is saying this using the character of mother, and not saying other things.

A book is the same thing. The book is what the author says in therapy. Do you really think the author knows why they are writing what they are writing? They may think they do, like patients who try to out think the therapist they are paying, but that in itself is analyzable. And in any case, the author may actually be wrong, and some reader distant in time and space may actually know better then they do why they wrote what they wrote.

I'm sure Philip Roth, being an insufferably arrogant prick, believes that he understands the meaning and import of everything in his books, but he seems to fail to understand that he writes over and over again about a male character whose qualities are simultaneously those that Roth himself fantasies that he has but also those qualities in himself that are the source of his deep and long-standing self-loathing. Roth is like a psych patient who spends years in therapy not trying to get better but rather trying to convince the shrink to acknowledge how special and brilliant he is.

The author's intent doesn't matter because the author is a crazy person who makes up imaginary stories all day and writes them down. You wouldn't ask an alcoholic why he drinks because the alcoholic actually doesn't know. You don't pick the author's brain to understand the text.

But you can go the other way. You absolutely can pick apart a text to get to the author's psychology, as well as the psychology of readers who especially like that text. I don't care what Ayn Rand tells me about Atlas Shrugged, I care what Atlas Shrugged tells me about Rand and her followers.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:05 AM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


ok whats the principle called
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:32 AM on December 6, 2011


This is a pretty interesting look into the way that different writers approach craft. But, I don't think it really provides any insight into the "proper way" to read a piece of literature, or whether or not an author's (conscious?) intention is the ultimate arbiter of truth in literature.

As MartinWisse points out, the "symbol-hunting" method of literary criticism is a very simple, very limited, very juvenile form of analysis, and not something that any half-way decent English instructor teaching post-high school courses should be teaching. And the literary concept of "symbol" properly understood is fairly specific -- the common use of it here and in high school English discourse really just means "overtone" or "connotation." Perhaps more importantly, the meaning of any literary figure (symbol, metaphor, representation, allegory, what have you) is not captured by a simple 1:1 pairing like Moby Dick = obsession or whatever. Any literary figure is the product of compression and distortion; it contains depths of meanings that shift depending on their interaction with other elements of a text, their context, the reader, etc. Not that anything can be anything, but what niccolo says, perhaps English educators should become philosophers and allow people to write about anything as long as it was a reasoned argument isn't really very far from what I (try to) do as an English prof. To paraphrase Hamlet, art holds a mirror up to nature; what I do is try to give my students the vocabulary for describing what they see in that mirror. Different vocabularies reveal different things, they allow us to see different aspects of a text's representation of reality. Some, perhaps most of these aspects are not part of an author's "intention" -- and that's only to be expected. Certainly I do find it interesting and useful to consider what an author/artist says about his/her work, process, etc. But again, that comes no where close to exhausting meaning. The best literature (or art) comes about when the creator is writing as more than him/herself. We work in a medium that is not our own -- language is greater than any individual, it ranges beyond the comprehension of even the most brilliant. The author is not simply a vessel for the gods, but the author IS a site of multiple forces coming together: personal, political, linguistic, cultural, economic, etc. The job of the literary critic, as I see it, is to unfold the text into as many dimensions as possible, enabling one to see the complex interactions of these different forces within a text at once.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:05 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


When I was in school in the 90s -- focusing on literary theory -- I could swear that almost all valances of the word 'symbolism' would have been smirked out of the seminar room (although 'allegory' seemed to be on the verge of a resurgence). Am I misremembering things?

In any case, Saxon Kane's comment above is lovely.
posted by nobody at 8:09 PM on December 6, 2011


niccolo: "In that vein, perhaps English educators should become philosophers and allow people to write about anything as long as it was a reasoned argument."

Still some way to go there, I guess: my best friend STILL rages about the (upper-division, Tufts University, seminar) English paper I got back marked, "You failed to support your thesis. A-"

Style over substance, baby!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:37 AM on December 7, 2011


Um, if he failed to support his thesis, then it WASN'T a reasoned argument.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:22 PM on December 7, 2011


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